2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: Terroir
by Antonio Galloni
The 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet
Sauvignons have turned out better than I expected. It was a challenging
vintage, but the best wines will surprise readers for their aromatic intensity,
finesse, balance and sense of place. Cold,
fall damp mornings with heavy fog. Typical Napa Valley harvest weather, right?
Not exactly. But that is 2011, one of the strangest growing seasons I have ever
seen. Anywhere. The early mornings in St. Helena, where I was staying, looked
more like Piedmont than California. On the mornings I ventured to Howell
Mountain and Pritchard Hill, something bizarre and beautiful happened. No more
fog, no more rain. And plenty of sunshine. Above the fog line, everything was
different. That was the first lesson I learned in 2011: terroir matters. Yes, there are some well-draining valley floor
sites that did well, but 2011 is a year where hillside vineyards are the stars.
Most importantly, 2011 is a beautiful vintage through which to discover what
makes Napa Valley’s best terroirs so
Vintage 2010 Revisited
I have always had a soft spot for
the 2010 vintage in Napa Valley, ever since I tasted the wines from barrel in
the fall of 2011. Last year I wrote that 2010 was an epic vintage. I still feel
that way today. The 2010s I tasted this year are just starting to open up, and
as that happens, there is an explosiveness in the fruit that is simply
Ovid, Pritchard Hill
Vintage 2011: Let it Rain
Vintage 2011 will be remembered for
many things, including heavy downpours in June that coincided with Auction Napa
Valley and flowering and generally very cold and damp weather. At high-quality
estates, the work started in the summer by dropping a significant amount of
crop. The vines were constantly under disease pressure.
During harvest weather was changing
constantly. Producers with in-house vineyard management and/or the ability to
change picks at the last minute had a huge advantage over everyone else.
Precocious varieties, especially Merlot, escaped with minimal damage.
Winemakers were not prepared for the onset of botrytis in Cabernet Sauvignon,
something few of them had seen. Interestingly, the French winemakers I visited
during the harvest were pretty relaxed. They had seen it all before. But
American winemakers were truly freaking out. Once the fruit was in, the sorting
was brutal, in some cases with more ending up in the trash than in the crusher.
Readers who want to re-visit the vintage, can do so with these short videos shot
Estate and Togni.
Winemakers used every tool they had
at their disposal in 2011. Tannins additions were quite normal. A number of
winemakers did more co-fermentations than usual in 2011 in order to give the
wines more harmony and balance from the outset. Cold soaks were virtually
non-existent given the delicate quality of the skins. In most cases, winemakers
pursued gentler extractions with lower temperatures and less time on the skins,
but some producers went the other way and fermented with high temperatures in
order to extract as much as possible, a fascinating range of stylistic choices.
Because of the fear of oxidation, rackings were generally reduced. Some
producers did more lees stirring to try to fatten up the wines. In many cases the
2011s were bottled earlier than normal. Readers will note the higher than
normal presence of Merlot and Petit Verdot in Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines,
both used to beef up the blends. In general, Merlot is the most successful
variety in 2011 because it ripened before the rains.
Tasting the 2011s at Araujo Estate block by block, spring 2012
At the end of the day, though, Napa
Valley’s winemakers are pretty spoiled. In a global context 2011 can’t possibly
be considered a poor vintage. Sure, the wines aren’t as opulent or generous as
they usually are. The vintage was brutal to work through and even harder on
bank accounts. Imagine a year where farming costs go through the roof and
revenues come down sharply because yields are tiny. But what about the wines?
The best are absolutely beautiful.
Overall, the 2011s are about a
percent lower in alcohol than is the norm. The wines are more savory and floral
than readers are used to these days, with medium-bodied structures and
generally less fat. I expect most 2011s to mature relatively early. Winemakers
took basically one of two approaches. The first was to try to make the 2011s
look like other vintages by fattening the wines up as much as possible with the
techniques described above. The best wines made in that style are hugely
successful. Other producers opted to let the mid-weight structure of the year
come through a bit more naturally. Here, too, the best wines are beautiful. In
short, there were no rights and wrongs; rather it is the quality of terroirs and the pure skill of
winemakers that define the 2011 vintage.
Tasting the 2011s 2012s at Joseph Phelps, fall 2013
2012 Vintage: Living up to the Hype?
Excitement was rampant in Napa
Valley last year. I spent quite a bit of time last September looking at the
vineyards just before the harvest, always the best time to see who has done
what. Two things were clear; on average yields were high, but more than that,
they were also incredibly variable from producer to producer, even within the
same vineyard. It is easy to understand why yields were high. After two very
short years in 2010 and 2011, growers wanted to recoup their losses. Some
succumbed to temptation and simply left too much crop on the vines. It was an
easy mistake to make given near perfect conditions in September and October
that were punctuated by a brief spell or two of heat. Other growers were more
diligent and cropped a bit more severely. Even so, the vines wanted to be
productive. One of the results of the large crop was an unexpected shortage of
tank capacity. With fruit needing to come off, smaller wineries found
themselves scrambling to find tank space the last minute, which is obviously
far from optimal.
Given the wide range of crop loads
throughout the valley it is hardly a surprise that the wines are also variable.
Fermentations were longer than normal, in some cases much longer. I heard of
stuck fermentations, lack of concentration, problems with lack of color and
other technical issues of various degrees.
Readers who want to learn more
about 2012 might enjoy the videos I shot during the harvest at Blankiet,
Eagle along with a series of videos
we shot at Abreu,
Shafer and Vine Hill
tasting the 2012s at Outpost, March 2013
I tasted all of the 2012s in this
article in three weeks between late September and mid-October, as is my custom.
In the past, I have found this a good time to taste, but not this time. Because
of the protracted alcoholic and malolactic fermentations, many wines were raw
and unpolished. Many producers showed just preliminary blends, while others
hadn’t even started working on their blends. Both 2010 and 2011 were easier to
taste at this stage in the game, but the 2012s remain unpolished and in need of
more time in barrel.
We won’t know the quality of 2012
until the wines are in bottle, but I expect to see significant variation in
quality. The reason it is harder to be more precise at this stage is because
blending is such a critical component in determining the quality of wines. At
the top estates, wines are shaping up to be beautiful, but they usually are. Those
wines also represent a drop in the bucket. For now, the best approach to 2012
is cautious optimism.
2013 Vintage: Early Observations
If there is a future Napa Valley
vintage to get excited about, it is without question 2013. The season was
characterized by drought-like conditions and warm weather throughout the year.
Harvest was early, but then two small, unexpected rain events relaxed things
into mid-October at a number of estates. Yields were lower than 2012, which was
obvious and easy to observe just by spending time in the vineyards. The berry
size was especially small in 2013. Most growers attributed the small berry size
to warm weather and lack of rain in late May and early June, adding that
irrigation compensated only to a small degree. Small berries mean high skin to
juice ratios, which is generally favorable for intensity of flavor and
structure. One of the unique attributes of the year is that even though the
grapes were concentrated, the fruit retained gorgeous acidity and structure.
The 2013s I have tasted so far –including Mayacamas, Ovid, Vine Hill Ranch,
Dalla Valle, Futo, Colgin and Bryant – are all impressive, even though it is
clearly very early. The 2013s are deeply colored wines with superb depth and
plenty of acidity to match. My first impression is that 2013 has the potential
to be a more complex and interesting vintage than 2012. For more on 2013,
readers might enjoy videos shot at Beaulieu
earlier this fall.
2013 Cabernet Sauvignon at Mayacamas
Buy the Estate not the Vintage
I have long believed that too much
emphasis is placed on the perceived quality of vintages and less on the quality
of producers. The vintage-centric view of wine originated in the early days of
the fine wine trade, when good or great vintages were scarce, so knowing where
to focus was critical. That is no longer the case. Climate change, the advent
of weather forecasting and huge leaps in viticulture and winemaking mean that
most vintages today are average or better, while truly disastrous vintages are,
by comparison, rare.
Think about it for a second. How
many times have you had a wine from a great producer in an ‘off’ vintage and
been positively surprised? Now ask yourself the inverse. How many times have
you had a wine from an average producer in a great vintage that is elevated by
the quality of the year? My guess is far less often. Yes, it’s true, a rising
tide lifts all boats, but only so far.
The trade will always place a great
deal of emphasis on vintages because that is still how wine is bought and sold.
Savvy consumers know better. Focusing on your favorite producers is a far
better strategy for finding wines you like rather than following all the hype (or
criticism) of the latest vintage on the market.
Cabernet Sauvignon at Madrona Ranch, St. Helena, fall 2013
How The Wines Were Tasted
This year I spent five and half
weeks in Napa Valley. Tasting wines that were new to me (some of which have yet
to be released) was the main purpose of my January trip. Tastings and visits in
March and April were focused on the 2012s from barrel. I then spent a week in
September and two weeks in October visiting properties, seeing vineyards and
doing tastings of the 2010s, 2011s and 2012s.
As an example of what that means in practical terms, consider the 2011
vintage. I spent 10 days in Napa Valley during the 2011 harvest and then tasted
the reference point wines every six months until they were bottled, from
block-by-block and single-component wines in spring 2012, to preliminary blends
in fall 2012, to final blends in spring 2013 and lastly to bottled wines in
fall 2013. For more, readers may want to take a look at this video,
which covers my approach to Napa Valley, while a second
clip takes a look at recent vintages.
Four years in one of the world’s
elite music schools taught me to appreciate quality above style. There are
great, average and below-average musicians in all genres. The very same thing
is true in wine. The paths to greatness are many. That is why readers will find
high-scoring wines in all styles; from the super-classic to the ultra-opulent.
Pride Mountain Vineyards, Spring Mountain
From the very beginning I have
sought to be as inclusive as possible. I have always made every effort to taste
with as many winemakers as possible. I don’t play the favorites game. Some
producers are charming, others are a bit pricklier, but at the end of the day
the only thing I care about when assessing a wine is the quality of what is in
Ongoing Coverage of Napa Valley
As Vinous increasingly moves towards
streaming of reviews, videos and other content, readers should expect
periodical updates and reviews that are published throughout the calendar
year. We had far more material than
anticipated for this article, so we will publish a smaller set of additional
reviews next week.
Cover: Continuum, Pritchard Hill